Monday, September 23, 2019

Back to Borneo, Part II

Greetings Everyone,
We’re in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo in the midst of our “Back to Borneo” tour. We’ve just arrived in Lahad Datu where we’ve met Adi, our new guide who will accompany us on the remainder of the trip. The next stop on our wildlife extravaganza was Tabin Wildlife Reserve. A one and a half-hour drive through oil palm plantations brought us to the resort where we checked in for a 4-night stay. Almost immediately we heard Northern Gray Gibbons outside our cabin and when we went to investigate we also got a great look at a Pale Giant Squirrel. This species is listed as near threatened by the IUCN due to logging and hunting.

Pale Giant Squirrel

Later that afternoon we joined Adi and Ley, our local guide for a visit to the Lipad Mud Volcano. We climbed an observation platform overlooking the mud volcano which still spews out mud laced with minerals that attract animals to this natural salt lick.

Lipad Mud Volcano

During our stay, 13 Bornean Bearded Pigs including a pair with 9 piglets came to the edge of the clearing.

Bornean Bearded Pig & Piglets

Colorful birds such as Temminck’s Sunbird and Rhinoceros Hornbills also visited the Lipad Mud Volcano and Marc was able to get some great shots.

Temminck’s Sunbird

Rhinoceros Hornbill

After dinner, we prepared to go on our first night drive to look for nocturnal animals. We hadn’t even left the resort when Ley spotted a Sunda Stink-badger peering from under a bush. Despite their common name, they are not closely related to true badgers and are instead relatives of Old World skunks.

Sunda Stink-badger

During the course of our night safari, we were fortunate to see two species of civet. The first was the more common Island Palm Civet (Paradoxurus philippensisrecently split from the Asian or Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). Civets are native to tropical Africa and Asia and are sometimes referred to as civet cats. They are not felines but belong to their own family called Viverridae. 

Island Palm Civet

The second civet species encountered was the rare Banded Civet (Hemigalus derbyanus). In fact, we were extremely lucky to see three of these beautiful creatures. It is the only species in the Genus Hemigalus. 

Banded Civet

We also had a great showing of a pair of Lesser Oriental Chevrotains or Mouse-deer on the road. Normally, these secretive ungulates are found deep in the forest. It is the smallest known hoofed mammal, weighing only 4.4 lb and measuring only 18 inches tall. 

Lesser Oriental Chevrotain

We were hoping to see more cats including the Sunda Clouded Leopard but they remained elusive. We did see two Bornean Leopard Cats but not well enough for a photo. We had three more nights to track down these secretive felines.

The next day we did a bit of birding before resting up for our second night drive. Tonight we saw an impressive 14 Island Palm Civets including a mother with 4 pups!

Island Palm Civets
We also saw a new species of Civet, the Malay Civet.

Malay Civet
We had more luck with the Bornean Leopard Cats tonight. One posed nicely for us in the open and Marc was able to get a good photo. Bornean Leopard Cats (Prionailurus javanensis ssp. sumatranus) have recently been split from their mainland cousins so this was a new species of cat for us!

Bornean Leopard Cat
The next day we rested up from our night forays before going on an afternoon walk. Not far from the resort we encountered a very large troop of Southern Pig-tailed Macaques including some impressive males, females nursing infants and juveniles playing, one with a soda can. 

Southern Pig-tailed Macaque
We opted to forego our 3rd night safari and decided to do a dawn safari instead. This meant a 3 AM start but we thought it may give us a better chance at finding a Clouded Leopard. It was our 33rd Wedding Anniversary and I joked with Marc that I wanted a Clouded Leopard for my anniversary. We were successful at finding a very obliging Bornean Leopard Cat posing nicely in a tree.

Bornean Leopard Cat
Sadly, no Clouded Leopard but we still had one more night drive. That afternoon we went birding and found a pair of beautiful White-crowned Hornbills. 

White-crowned Hornbill
After dinner, we went on our fourth and final night drive. We found our fourth species of civet, the Bornean Striped Palm Civet (Arctogalidia stigmatica).  In most references, it is still listed as the Small-tooth Palm Civet (Arctogalidia triviirgata) so more taxon changes are on the way. 

Bornean Striped Palm Civet
We stopped for a break and Adi, Ley and Garth had a surprise for us, a Happy Anniversary cake with candles. What a sweet gesture!

Happy Anniversary!
Our nocturnal team found Bornean Slow Loris, Sunda Colugo, Sunda Leopard Cat, Island Palm Civet but sadly no Clouded Leopard. I couldn’t complain though, it had been an awesome way to spend our 33rd Wedding Anniversary.

The next morning we said goodbye to Ley and left Tabin Wildlife Reserve. The next stop on our wildlife extravaganza was the Kinabatangan River. We had visited here back in 1992 but I was eager to see Proboscis Monkeys again and hopefully wild orangutans. We were not disappointed. That evening we found a troop of Proboscis Monkeys feeding in trees along the river. These endangered primates are among the largest monkeys in Asia and are the only species in the genus NasalisThe large males are most comical with their long Jimmy Durante noses!  So, why such a big nose? Some theorize that females prefer males with bigger noses because they can make louder vocalizations. 

Proboscis Monkey
As we were cruising down the Kinabatangan River the next morning, Adi suddenly shouted “orangutans!”. A family of three Northeast Bornean Orangutans was feeding on figs in the trees quite close to the river. Incuk, our boat driver said these orangutans had not been seen in a week so we were lucky to find them. These critically endangered primates share 97% of our DNA. Sadly they face extinction due to habitat loss, palm oil plantations, and hunting. We watched the female with her youngster and a nearby male for 30 minutes.

Northeast Bornean Orangutans
During our viewing, a full boat of 12 pulled up and someone inside exclaimed “Peggy!”. It was our friend Lorene from South Burlington! We knew that she would be on the Kinabatangan at the same time but how fun to watch the orangutans with her!

We returned to the lodge for breakfast before going out again to visit the nearby Gomantong Caves. As we neared the entrance we could smell the bat guano. Gomantong isn’t a cave in the classic sense but more of a limestone chamber that houses many swiftlets and bats. The swiftlet nests are still harvested, supposedly sustainably, for bird's nest soup. Why anyone would want to eat a nest made out of bird saliva is beyond me.

Gomantong Cave
From what I’ve read there are three species of bats in the cave: Wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat (Chaerephon plicatus), Large-eared horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus philippinensis) and Fawn leaf-nosed bat. They were high on the ceiling making photography and identification difficult. A wooden boardwalk had now been built in the cave so you didn't have to walk on the piles of guano crawling with cockroaches. On the walls were a few spiders and other creepy crawlers. If you don’t like bats, cockroaches, and spiders, it’s best not to enter the cave!

Cockroaches in the Cave
We had just exited and we on our way back when another guide motioned us to come quickly. A courting pair of wild orangutans were low in the trees next to the boardwalk! We got great views as they moved through the branches to a nearby fruiting tree where the male picked a fruit to eat and share with his mate.

Orangutan Couple
We decided to go out at 10:00 PM to look for the Flat-headed Cat. We had failed to find one the previous night and even though it was a long shot, we had to give it another try. We headed upriver with Adie and Incuk spotlighting the banks. Forty minutes into the boat safari Incuk spotted a cat on the bank of the river. It was a Flat-headed Cat! It disappeared into the grass quickly and Marc was only able to get a butt shot. Bummer! We cut the boat engine and shut off our lights for a short time and amazingly the cat came back out. We got prolonged views of this amazing feline completely in the open! The cat would appear for a bit, then disappear into the grass only to reappear. It didn’t appear to be fazed by our lights. We watched it for 30 minutes before leaving it to hunt in peace. Flat-headed Cats are rarely seen let alone photographed!

Flat-headed Cat

The following morning we said goodbye to Incuk and thanked him profusely for finding the Flat-headed Cat. Our second visit to the Kinabatangan was even better than the first. Our return trip to Borneo continued to amaze us with incredible wildlife (and human) encounters. Stay tuned to see what surprises are in store for us as we continue our “Back to Borneo” tour.

We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Back to Borneo!

Greetings Everyone,
We are in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. We were last here in 1992, our very first trip to Asia! Back then everything was new and very exotic. I was hesitant to return to Borneo knowing it would be very difficult to top our inaugural visit to the Asian continent. However, the draw of seeing wildlife was too strong to resist and we booked a trip in September through Adventure Alternative Borneo. This time the focus would be entirely different.

Our 1st Trip to Borneo in 1992

Our first destination was Kinabalu Park, established in 1964 it's Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site. The main draw is the majestic Mount Kinabalu, at 13,435 feet it’s one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks. We scaled it in 1992 so there was no need for us to climb it again. 

Peggy on Mt Kinabalu, 1992

This time we were here to look for birds with our guide, Henry and set off along the main road in search of avian quarry. We saw around 27 species including Sunda Laughingthrush, Indigo Flycatcher, and two endemic species: Whitehead’s Trogon and Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush.

Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush

Whitehead’s Trogon

Not to be outdone by the birds, the squirrels were out in full force. We saw Bornean Black-banded Squirrel, Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel, Jentink’s Squirrel and this adorable Tufted Pygmy Squirrel feeding on lichen on a tree right next to the road.

Tufted Pygmy Squirrel

We passed a memorial and several trees that had been planted in memory of the 18 people who had died during the 2015 Sabah earthquake. One was dedicated to Robbie Sapinggi, Henry’s brother and mountain guide, who had given up his life to save others!

Robbie Sapinggi Memorial

On the way to Poring Hot Springs, an hour's drive away, we stopped at the Adenna Rafflesia Garden to check out the blooming giant rafflesia. The first flower was very large at 71 cm. The second two blooms were slightly smaller, around 50 cm. Rafflesia is a genus of parasitic flowering plants. It contains approximately 28 species, all found in Southeast Asia. The species with the world’s largest flower is Rafflesia arnoldii. It can grow to be 3 feet or 91 cm across. The species we were seeing was Rafflesia keithii.

Rafflesia keithii

We visited Poring Hot Springs back in 1992 just 2 years after the canopy walkway was open to the public. In fact, it was Dr. Illar Muul whom we met in Peru in 1991 who encouraged us to go to Borneo. He was instrumental in designing and building some of the first canopy walkways in the world. Basically, a series of aluminum ladders were bolted together and suspended over the rainforest canopy from steel cables. The open rungs of the ladders were covered with boards and netting enclosed both sides so you felt somewhat secure.

Marc on the Canopy Walkway

For most tourists, it’s the thrill of being 140 feet above ground which draws them to the walkway but for us, it was the opportunity to see the canopy birds. We spent several hours on a platform watching and photographing birds. The highlight was this colorful Black-and-yellow Broadbill who perched close by!

Black-and-Yellow Broadbill

We returned to Kota Kinabalu where we spent the night before flying to Tawau the next morning. We were met by our guide, Chun, who is also the president of 1StopBorneo Wildlife, a volunteer group founded in 2012 to raise awareness of Borneo’s wildlife through education, animal rescue and release, and ecotourism. To find out more about 1StopBorneoWildlife and how you can help go to: 

We were on our way to Tawau Hills Park and hoped to see Borneo Pygmy Elephants which we didn’t see during our first trip. Not long after settling into the Bombalai Jungle Lodge near the park headquarters we heard the haunting calls of gibbons! We went to investigate and found a small troop feeding on figs low in the forest. They were endangered Northern Gray Gibbons (Hylobates funereus) recently split from the Bornean Gibbon (Hylobates muelleri).

Northern Gray Gibbon 

Also called the lesser apes, gibbons differ from great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and humans) in being smaller, not exhibiting sexual dimorphism and not making nests. Like all apes, gibbons are tailless. They move with great speed and agility through the trees by brachiation, swinging from branch to branch using only their long arms.

That night Chun showed us some of the smaller nocturnal inhabitants of the rainforest including insects, amphibians and an amazing gliding Thomas's Flying Squirrel. We watched in awe as the squirrel glided about 100 meters illuminated by the light of the full moon. 

Thomas's Flying Squirrel

The next morning we drove to Sabah Softwoods Berhad (SSB), a nearby palm oil and softwood plantation that seemed an unlikely place to look for Borneo Pygmy Elephants. A couple of SSB employees, Watie and Jamal, a wildlife warden met us in the early afternoon. Before searching for the elephants, we had to help plant seedlings into a wildlife corridor that SSB and 1StopBorneo Wildlife are creating to connect Tawau Hills Park to the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Jamal showed us how to plant the trees by first digging out a square 12 inches wide on each side and about 8 inches deep. A sapling is then placed into the hole along with some fertilizer and covered with dirt. Marc, Chun and I each planted 3 trees. It was hard work and I was dripping sweat but we worked as fast as possible. I was motivated to finish quickly to give us more time to find the elephants. I hope our trees survive! 

Peggy Planting a Tree

We drove around the plantation for almost an hour without seeing an elephant or any recent signs of them. I was beginning to think they were absent today. Around 4:20 we spotted our first elephants! A small herd of around 6 were at the bottom of a steep pitch in the road. They were 200 meters away but Jamal said we could get out of the truck and approach them on foot. 

 Borneo Pygmy Elephants (photo courtesy of Chun Xing Wong) 

The Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) is a subspecies of the Asian Elephant and the smallest elephant in the world. How they got to Borneo is still under debate. Some suggest that they were brought here by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century while others contend that the pygmy elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra and indigenous to Borneo. 

Borneo Pygmy Elephants 

We returned to the truck and followed them along the road. On the way more and more elephants joined the herd, there must have been 25-30! The herd kept getting bigger and bigger. 

Elephant Herd on the Road

Finally, they moved off the road and we were able to get past. Just when we thought we were in the clear we caught up to another 12 or so. Fortunately, this group moved off the road quickly. In all, I’d say there were 35-40 elephants, at least half the plantation’s population of 60-80! I hope they make use of the wildlife corridor. In recognition of our effort in planting trees, Watie presented us with a certificate. 

Watie Presenting Tree Planting Certificates

Our return to Borneo was already off to a great start. We had already seen so much more wildlife than on our first visit. We’d like to thank our guides Henry and Chun for sharing some of the marvels of Borneo with us and for all their work in helping to protect this very special place! Stay tuned to see more of the weird and wonderful creatures of Borneo!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map: